two abstract figured looking at each other

I'm Nobody! Who Are You?

by Emily Dickinson

Start Free Trial

How does the speaker use diction and figurative language in "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" to portray what it's like to be a somebody, and how does this impact the meaning of the text?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the first stanza, the speaker appears quietly delighted to have discovered someone else who is "Nobody." In the second, she contrasts their joint good fortune with the tedium of being a brash, vulgar "Somebody." The first adjective used is "dreary," suggesting a combination of boredom, unhappiness, and sullen ugliness. The punctuation and the position of the word at the end of the line combine to stress "Somebody," as though the speaker is spitting it out with a mixture of pity and contempt.

The adjective "public" might, in certain contexts, be a term of approbation, but the following simile shows that it is intended to convey a boastful vulgarity. Frogs are small creatures which make a great deal of noise. It is fairly common, on an evening in the middle of summer, to hear a bellowing sound from some small pond and conclude that an animal at least the size of an ox must be stuck in it, only to reach the water's edge and be quite mystified as to where all the noise is coming from. Close inspection reveals a bullfrog, very small but swollen with apparent self-importance, bloviating at nothing. Dickinson adds the telling detail that the frog is shouting out his name to a bog which he fondly imagines is admiring, though the poet's use of the term is ironic. All this reinforces the secluded, insular, intensely private delight of being Nobody.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

First, it should be noted that Somebody is used as a proper pronoun, connoting a special significance; however, when readers reflect back upon the first stanza, it is also evident that Nobody is also capitalized, therefore making the two structurally equal. Dickinson creates a visual equality to lessen the impact that a person who might consider herself a "somebody" could initially envision.

The speaker also uses a simile to compare the publicity of being a Somebody to being like a frog. By making this comparison, the speaker conveys two different qualities of being a Somebody:

  1. Being a somebody is obnoxious. Frogs can be noisy. At first, it can be fairly calming to listen to a frog croak his way through the night. But anyone who has been camping and pitched a tent near an unseen frog who cannot be quietened knows that the voice can become weary after a while. Sometimes frogs never seem to know when to cease croaking. The speaker's simile aligns this same sense of self-important, incessant noise as a quality of those who consider themselves a somebody.
  2. Pictures of frogs in children's books are much cuter than they often are in real life. Most often, frogs are considered slimy, lumpy, bumpy little creatures. They don't enjoy the same warm sentiments of other wild animals, like bunnies or even turtles. The speaker then uses this cold, slimy image of a frog to imply that a person who considers himself a somebody often does not realize that others don't see him the same way and may even squirm a bit by his obnoxious presence.

The speaker proudly aligns herself with the "nobody" faction, avoiding the "dreary" life that the "somebody" crowd must surely suffer. The diction and figurative language bring a sense of strength to an often overlooked and almost never celebrated segment of society: those without any fame or glory.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this poem the speaker addresses the reader, asking in the second line "Are you – Nobody – too?". The way this line is punctuated implies that the speaker has paused while speaking. This makes it seem secretive. This feeling is reinforced in the fourth line when the speaker implores the reader "Don't tell!" Showing the diction of speech by using dashes, question marks and exclamation marks makes the speaker seem conspiratorial. The speaker's feelings about being a "Nobody"—that it is a good thing—are shown to be digressive. The speaker therefore feels that being "Somebody" (the opposite of nobody) is conventional and boring.

The figurative language in this poem uses the imagery of a frog in a bog. The assonance and rhyme of these two words adds to their meaning. The drawl of the "o" followed by the guttural hard "g" sound is quite simple, and this reinforces their implication: that to be "Somebody" is squalid and banal.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emily Dickinson is known for her short, concise poetry. Because her poems are usually only a few stanzas in length, she chose every word and punctuation mark very carefully. She uses diction by choosing words that evoke strong emotions in the reader. She capitalizes the word "Nobody" each time it is written and separates the word from the rest of the poem both in the first and second lines. She uses an exclamation point in the first line and dashes in the second line to emphasize the word and show its separateness. She also separates the word "Somebody" in the same manner, drawing emphasis to the word. The reader can distinctly see the line between being "Somebody" and being "Nobody" because of their capitalization and punctuation.

Other words used in the poem that stand out to the reader are "dreary," "frog," and "bog". All three words denote a negative view of being "Somebody." She uses the words figuratively to describe the how it would feel to be "Somebody," which she obviously does not want to be. The word dreary, which is often used to describe a landscape, works figuratively, as she uses it to describe what she thinks it must be like to be in the popular crowd. She uses the word "frog" to describe the public exposure of being popular. Frogs are often seen hopping about and croaking loudly, which does not sound appealing to the reader.

By comparing onlookers to "an admiring bog," Dickinson is showing her distaste for the crowd. A bog is a wet, muddy area that is squishy and slimy. Dickinson's figurative use of this word ends the poem with little question as to how the speaker wishes to spend her life, and it is certainly not in the public eye, croaking about like a frog in a bog!

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial